Maintain Muscle Mass in a Calorie Deficit?

I want to talk about a study which blows away the idea of losing muscle mass on a very low calorie, short-term diet.

So what happens when 20 people go on a 12 week diet of 800 calories per day? Read more to find out.

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A Quick Background of the Low Calorie Diet Study

This was a study done published in The American College of Nutrition in 1999.

The study has a seriously lengthy name: Effects of Resistance vs. Aerobic Training Combined With an 800 Calorie Liquid Diet on Lean Body Mass and Resting Metabolic Rate.

The study took 20 people and put them on 800 calories per day for 12 weeks. 10 people did the low calorie diet and resistance training & 10 people did the low calorie diet with cardio.

 Results for the Dieters Who Did Cardio Only

The cardio only group lost most overall weight than the resistance only group, but unfortunately lost a significant amount of lean body mass.

They also experienced a decrease in resting metabolic rate. So, obviously if someone is dieting hard they need to more than just cardio to maintain their lean muscle mass.

Results for the Dieters Who Did Resistance Training

This group didn’t lose any muscle mass whatsoever. In fact they lost more body fat than the cardio only group. Also, you have probably heard that “the metabolism slows down if calories are kept too low”.

Well…this group actually had a higher resting metabolic rate than when they started. So resistance training is key when you are dieting.

I Don’t Want Everyone to Take This The Wrong Way

The last thing I want is for people to go overboard and begin starving themselves.

These people were under close supervision and it was for a 12 week period of time. I’m sure the long term effects of eating so few calories would have a negative effect.

Want to Give “Props” to Brad Pilon and Alwyn Cosgrove

I’m not the only one who is “in the know” when it comes to maintaining your muscle mass on a low calorie diet. Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat, talks about this in his ebook (this is the way I’ve been eating for over a year now thanks to Brad…a great way to stay lean year round).

More recently, I read about this study in Alwyn Cosgrove’s mega-course Warp Speed Fat Loss (this course is geared for people who want to drop 20-25 pounds in just 4 weeks! It costs a little more than some of the other courses…but is 400+ page monster).

I have interviews coming up with both of these guys. Two of the best minds in the Industry.

Bottom Line…If You Are Struggling to Lose Weight

If you are at a sticking point, mix in short periods of time (2-4 weeks) where you eat quite a bit less calories than normal (10 calories per pound of your target weight is a good starting point).

You will most likely have to cut these calories from the carb side of the equation. You will want to make sure you get adequate protein.

Also, it wouldn’t hurt to take a multivitamin during these periods of eating low calories. When you are eating lower calories than normal, remember to do resistance training to insure you don’t lose muscle and that your resting metabolism stays high.

A Common Mistake Many Women Make

A lot of women diet hard and then live on cardio machines.

The result is a lower resting metabolism over time and loss of lean body mass. They will get much better results if they add a little resistance training of some sort into the equation.

92 thoughts on “Maintain Muscle Mass in a Calorie Deficit?”

  1. Rusty you are changing lives with your article. i just find the pull-ups so tough. IDo you think if I do twice the number of sit ups will be as good?

  2. I wanted to add that for short term low calorie use Isometrics done daily work fantastic to preserve lean tissue and has a very low caloric impact while performing. The plus side is that like resistance training with weights you get a up-regulation of the metabolism for many hours after. I liked a book titled Isometric Power Revolution you can still get it in spiral bond format.

  3. Great article! I have been looking all over the internet for dieting tips, and so far I think this is my favorite 🙂

    I have some questions. I’m about 5’5-5’6″, and I’m rather young (under 18) but I’m trying to lose weight. I have quite a bit of muscle mass, though I am overweight and am trying to shed 50 pounds as quick as possible. My current diet can be anywhere from 700-800 calories, although occasionally I go up to 1,200 or as low as 500; I have been eating like this for almost 2 weeks and have dropped about 8 or 9 pounds. Because I am overweight, I found that my body does not seem to be suffering from hair loss or other classic symptoms of anorexia.

    I do not want to lose my muscle mass, I would like to build it up more, if possible, as I am still an athlete. I try to do resistance training such as crunches (50 at a time, 3-4 reps), push-ups (20, 1-2 rep), and squats (20, 1 rep) every night. Is this enough? Recently, I found that push-ups seem to be harder for me than before, though this could be because my body is heavier than before. What do you think? Can I continue to do what I’m doing, without losing muscle mass, or do I need to change something? Some of my friends have noticed that I’m eating less, and I would like to know if you think that I am doing fine. Much appreciated, great article! Thanks again for this information 🙂

  4. Hi Rusty, you’re obviously a big advocate of calorie based diets as opposed to the view of many others where they say “don’t count calories, just macronutrients”.
    I myself am on a low calorie diet – 1500-1800 a day to be exact, depending on cardio level. I’m also keeping protein high (around 200g) I’m exercising 6 days a week and feel tired and hungry most of the time, especially close to bedtime. Did you have this in your experience? I know everybody is different so just trying to get different perspectives.

  5. What about 1500 Calories a day (or whatever is 75% normal maintenance) and at least 50g of protein a day (whatever a non-lifter needs). Occasional cardio and little to no weight training? Whilst weight loss will be slow and steady, as it is diet induced more than exercise. Will it all be fat and no (or hardly any) muscle or are weights needed to preserve muscle on any diet? I’m curious

  6. I just started my diet, im 6’1 at 215 my goal is 180 my intake is 900 calories but alot of protein because i wanna burn fat and gain muscle would this be ideal for me or should i increase the calories?

  7. Hello,

    First of, I just love your perception of fitness -id est flat stomach, abs and decent amount of muscles-, and want to thank you for this great quantity of information you give us.

    I understood resistance training help increase resting metabolic rate but it’s been a while since I injured my two elbows, and I can only do dumbbell flies, shoulder raises (front-lateral-posterior) and leg training. Is it enough to be consider effective resistance training ?

    Thanks in advance for your answer!

  8. i lift fairly heavy 3 times a week in a program thats supposed to build both muscle and strength, and its working very well for me. Id also like to lose some weight, and i simply cannot do that when im lifting. I know im not overeating, because when i stop lifting i immediaty begin to shed pounds, but as soon as i hit the gym it stops. What could i do to keep my strength and muscle gains, but begin losing weight? I cant work out any more than i am now, id like to just stop with the weights, or do a bare minimum if need be, and switch to a cardio or sprinting and biking regimen. Any ideas on this? Ive done IF and it works well for me except when im hitting the weights.

  9. Today is July 15, 2011. I’ve lost 20 pounds since June 6 – with 700-800 calories a day and my goal is to lose 15 more pounds by September 1. I do both cardio and resistance work 6 days a week and surprisingly I don’t get hungry. That’s the part that has me worried (along with the fact that I’m going against the rules, so to speak). I feel good. I’m 75 years old, female, and unquestionably getting stronger because of the strength training. oh – I injured myself last november and gained 25 pounds, so much of the 40-pound loss is getting back to where I was then.

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